Chicken of the Woods, Week Ending 10/13/2019

I had planned a post about fall wild edibles that are making their appearance in central MD in mid-October.

Or maybe a roundup of “edible but forgettable” foraging – you know, those plants that you could eat, but might not actually care to. Oh, you didn’t know? I didn’t realize myself until relatively recently that there is so much wild food to enjoy (at least around here), it’s okay to be picky. When I first learned about foraging, I was gobsmacked about how much wild food exists and I wanted to try EVERYTHING. Well, this will be a future post as well.

These and other ideas fell by the wayside on Thursday, when I finally found meal-worthy mushrooms: Chicken of the Woods.

Chicken of the woods on a red oak stump
Chicken of the woods on a red oak stump

I spotted them from the passenger seat of my husband’s truck, at 35 miles per hour. We were en route to rescue our kids from a broken down car in the high school parking lot, and he drove a road I never, ever take. I was gazing out the window, dwelling on the car’s possible problems, when I shrieked, “Chickens!”

Needless to say, I startled my husband. Luckily it was a small country road with no other cars on it!

See, I have only ever found mediocre mushrooms. Edible, yes, but not … I don’t know, satisfying. Wood ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) is tasty enough, turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) has great health benefits, and the one lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) I found was delicious but barely more than a mouthful.

But this time, I had located a real mushroom feast.

Look at all those chickens!
Look at all those chickens!

Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), also known as sulphur shelf, is a relatively easy mushroom to spot and clearly identify. The fungus is fond of dead oaks, like the red oak where I found this one. Several days after a soaking rain is the best time to look, as the moisture seeps into the wood and encourages the fruiting bodies (the part we actually eat) to grow.

This particular fungal colony was actually several days older than optimal for harvesting. We collected five pounds total – which was less than half of the mushrooms on that stump! – but only about half of that is good to eat. Many of the “stems”, where the mushroom attached to the tree, were too tough and woody to enjoy. You want to focus on the parts of the mushroom that are soft and flexible when you bend them.

A five pound tower of chicken of the woods
A five pound tower of chicken of the woods

Chicken of the woods is so named because it tastes like – you guessed it! – chicken. The texture is similar as well. It is very popular as a vegan or vegetarian chicken replacement. And unlike most imitation chicken you find at the supermarket, it is free from industrial processing and artificial ingredients.

We soaked the fungus in water to help loosen up debris and dirt clinging to the flesh. A nail brush helped with the cleaning process. After removing the tougher, less flexible parts of the mushrooms, we sliced them in strips…

Washed chicken of the woods cut into strips
Washed chicken of the woods cut into strips

…and sauteed them in butter with salt and fresh ground black pepper. I used a medium heat, but failed to track how long it took. I just cooked them until they looked “done”. Since it’s not actually meat, there’s no danger to undercooking so we sampled along the way until it seemed browned enough.

Cooking chicken of the woods in butter with salt and pepper
Cooking chicken of the woods in butter with salt and pepper

One of my picky eaters wouldn’t even try the “chicken”. That’s what I get for being honest that they were actually mushrooms! (But honesty is the best policy, right?) The other child sampled one single piece, but declined more. Which left all this chicken-y goodness for the adults!

Cooked chicken (of the woods) strips
Cooked chicken (of the woods) strips

(Yes, I am growing hungry as I write!)

There are many recipes online for chicken of the woods – including deep fried chicken tenders – but no need to get too fancy. Any recipe where you would normally use fresh chicken breast, you could substitute chicken of the woods. Also, the general guidance is that chicken of the woods should be cooked before eating (although I may have nibbled a small piece raw) since some people may have adverse reactions to uncooked specimens.

The other fungus I am still hunting is maitake (also known as hen of the woods, Grifola frondosa) and lion’s mane that is large enough to truly enjoy. I have more confidence now, however! It’s just a matter of persistence.

What amazing forage have you uncovered lately? Nature is full of gifts, if we just get out of own heads (and drama) to actually look!

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